Friday, January 18, 2008


This week I am preparing for my first visit back to the US after seven months here. I feel very much at home here and am looking forward to a good year, with lots of possibilities. But I am also looking forward to going back to St. Thomas as well as to visit friends in the Twin Cities and family in the Philadelphia area.

Today it got up to 81 degrees here; I checked the weather in Ames and it’s well below freezing and probably won’t get above freezing next week. BRRR! After a cold and rainy few days at the beginning of this month, it’s been incredible weather here – cool at night and generally sunny and warm during the day. But the dry season has begun and it’s already extremely dusty everywhere, particularly on the dirt roads around Dulce Nombre.

This past Wednesday I went to Dulce Nombre and Fr. Efraín and I talked about projects of the coming year. he has a great desire to combine spiritual formation and social development in a very poor parish.

A first priority in the parish will be religious education of children. This weekend there’s a training for new catechists and next week there’s a training for returning catechists. He figures that there are about 225 catechists in the parish and more than 3000 children in the first four grades. There will be several more study days for the catechists throughout the year. There is a team that will plan and lead these training sessions and I will help as much as I can.

He also wants to develop a pilot project on the construction of silos to store basics grains, primarily corn. He has a friend who can teach people how to make silos. We talked about the scope of the project. I think he’d really like to train folks in all the 45 communities of the parish but the costs of this would be prohibitive. However, we talked about a pilot project in five communities.

Padre Efraín has experience in projects like this in his previous parish where they set up a revolving fund so that as people paid off their loans money was made available for projects for other people. That is what he hopes to do with the silo project.

Campus ministry at the Catholic University campus is going slowly. I will miss the first four weeks of classes as well as some of the retreats for new students. I regret this, but there will be more retreats, meetings with faculty, and many more opportunities when I return in February. There is no lack of work to be done and the director of the campus, Dr. Francisco Castro, is very supportive of campus ministry and is looking for ways to strengthen the program and really wants my assistance as the program develops.

Though I’d love to do more in this, I guess that patience and persistence are what I most need at this point. This is a great contrast to the developed program in campus ministry at St. Thomas.

As I go back to Ames, I wonder how I am going to react to all the contrasts – not only the weather, but also the ease of life I had there. It isn’t that life is hard for me here; in fact, I feel as if I am not doing all that much. But for most people here things are hard and everything takes a long time.

When I mention to people that I will be gone for a few weeks back to the US, someone almost invariably asks, “Will you take me with you?” Sometimes this is said in jest, sometimes they are very serious. I wonder what makes people so willing to leave family, friends, and home; something is very wrong here. And so I am glad when I can find ways to help make things even a little better for folks – often just by being present with them and helping them see their own dignity and worth.

But still the question resounds, “”Will you take me back with you?” But, as one person mentioned to me, I will in some very real sense take them back with me in my heart. And I hope that I will be able to share their joys and hopes, their pains and sorrows with the people I’ll meet back in the USA.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Honduras and the early Church Fathers

This past week has not been all that busy since the Christmas vacations are just ending, the Catholic University doesn’t begin classes until January 21, and I am preparing for a visit back to Ames. But I did have an opportunity to have an extended talk with the director of the Catholic University about campus ministry on Tuesday and spent Saturday in Dulce Nombre as twenty folks came together to plan activities for the parish.

But my contact with the poor this week has again touched me.

Monday, after helping with the literacy program at the jail, I went with Sor Inez, a Spanish Franciscan sister, to visit a house in Colonia Divina Providencia, a poor neighborhood here in Santa Rosa. Sor Inez had told me of the family. The mother works from about 7 am to 7 pm for a family in town, which leaves her little time for her own family. So she has to leaves her baby in the care of her two older girls. The shack they live in is two rooms, a small room with two “beds,” and a kitchen and eating area – both with dirt floors. The mother borrowed money from her boss to pay for the land her shack sits on and cannot leave the job until she pays back the $150 she owes. This sounds to me like something out of the past – a type of indentured servitude. When she pays off the loan she can seek another job that would have fewer hours and leave evenings, Sundays, and many Saturdays free to care for her family. Sor Inez is working with her on this. Here is a woman who is a hard worker but has become trapped in poverty.

This past week I also spent one morning and one afternoon in Hogar San José, a home for malnourished kids under five, run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. The kids crave affection and now that they know me are less boisterous when I am around. Some of the infants are really tiny, showing the lack of food, but a good number of the others seem to be doing fairly well.

Seeing one little girl with an enlarged head I recalled the number of people I’ve seen here with serious physical disabilities, especially weak twisted legs which makes walking very difficult. Many are probably birth defects. I don’t know the statistics, but this is more than I recall seeing in the States. Or maybe they are just hidden there.

It's interesting how what I am reading sometimes fits in with my life here.

A few days ago I began reading Daniel G. Groody’s Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice (Orbis Books, 2007), which I am finding very good.

But what most surprised me – and delighted me – in the book is his chapter on “Justice in the Early Church.” He has mined some very pointed quotes from the early church fathers which are very critical of the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the poor. When I hear people criticizing the church for speaking out against injustice, I will turn back to the this chapter since the Fathers of the Church are quite harsh and their words speak forcefully to our world today.

St. Gregory of Nyssa said, contrasting the behavior of the greedy with that of wolves and dogs, “ …the insatiably greedy never allow any other human being to share in their wealth. Let a moderate table be enough for you. Do not throw yourself into the sea of unbridled consumption.”

In contrast to the modern claim to absolute right to private property, the fathers of the church – as well as recent popes – see wealth and property as God’s gifts that we are called to care for as good stewards. As St. John Chrysostom preached, “Wealth is not a possession, it is not property; it is a loan for use. For when you do, willingly or unwillingly, all that you have goes to others, and they again give it up to others , and they again to others. For we are all sojourners…”

And so, what is important in the eyes of God is not what we accumulate but what we give away. As St. John Chrysostom said, “…let us not make this the object of our concern, to seek in every way possible to acquire more possession, but consider how to dispose of them properly by alleviating the need of those found wanting, lest we lose those goods that last forever…”

Peter Maurin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, put it nicely:
“What we do for our brother
for Christ’s sake
is what we carry with us
when we die.”

The fathers also spoke against the exploitation of the poor by the rich, in words that some might now regard as harsh or claim is fomenting class warfare. St. Ambrose, castigating the rich, wrote, "Such is your humanity that you plunder even as you pretend to give aid! Even a poor person is for you a fruitful means of acquiring profit. In their need, you subject the poor to high interest loans, compelling them to pay what they do not have." When I read this I could not help thinking of the poor woman in Colonia Divina Providencia

And, in light of the struggle here in Honduras over gold mining, these words of Ambrose are to the point: “By the needy gold is acquired yet it is denied to the needy. The needy toil and labor to seek out and find what they will never be permitted to possess.” The gold mining companies pollute the water, destroy forests, and yet only pay 1% in taxes.

Since I might be teaching a course on Catholic Social Teaching in mid-2008 at the Catholic University, I may have to find ways to incorporate some of their insights into the course. It is truly amazing how rich the Catholic tradition is and how it so often speaks to what is happening in our world today.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Padre Fausto

Two or three weekends a month I spend in the rural parish of Dulce Nombre. But when I am home on Sunday morning I go to Mass at the nearby chapel of San Martín de Porres. The church serves this area of the cathedral parish in the upper part of the city and has its own council, mostly composed of leaders of the local base communities.

Most Sundays Padre Fausto Milla, a youthful 80 year old Honduran priest, celebrates Mass. Padre Fausto is known for his advocacy of a healthy diet, eating local fruits and vegetables, and often rails against Coca Cola and chips, which abound here.

In his celebration of the Eucharist Padre Fausto brings together a deep piety and a radical Gospel message. He is also a gentle man but often speaks strongly and prophetically. This Sunday, the feast of the Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men to worship Jesus, was no exception.

He can be very “folksy,” as he comments on the readings. After the first reading, Isaiah 60:1-6, he asked the people what this meant for them. After eliciting several responses he commented that it’s like the weather. Today, after four days of clouds, rain and mist, the sun has appeared. And so today we speak of Jesus, the Sun, the light.

The Gospel tells of the wise men, the Magi, following the star. But, he asked what happened when they got to Jerusalem. There was no star for they were seeking Jesus in the wrong place. he compared Jerusalem to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras – where, he aid, government leaders are getting their good salaries, but….

After finding out that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod met secretly with the Magi – perhaps, Padre Fausto said, so that others would not go with them to reverence the new born king. And then Herod told them to report back so he could come and worship the child. “Lies,” Padre Fausto said. he’s like to politicians who use the name of God in everything, especially in political campaigns, but don’t really worship God. For them it’s not “Primero Dios” – a popular expression that means “God first.” It’s money, power, and then, somewhere down the list, God.

He recalled how there are those who invoke God’s name but have been involved in repression, including the assassinations, disappearances, and tortures that plagued Honduras in the 1980s. He mentioned a president and general who were responsible for much of the repression. The general cam in for particular derision, for he later joined an evangelical church but never asked pardon from the people of Honduras for his crimes.

His harsh words are rooted in his experience. In the early eighties he was captured by death squads.. Though he was not tortured, he could hear the cries of others being tortured in the prison where they were held. Several months after being released, he fled to Mexico where he remained for about four years.

The homily ended with a call for the people to care for the starving here in Honduras and to be involved in true politics.

After the prayer of the faithful he went and had a child remove the image of the Christ Child from the Christmas crib. He then stood in front of the altar and invited people to come and reverence the image with a kiss or a touch. It was moving to see the people come forward, children, old people, even a recent university graduate (who plays in a rock band). For him it is important that the people express their faith not only politically but in their commitment to Jesus and to the Kingdom of God.

This combination of radical politics and popular piety might seem unusual to some in the US, but this is what I have seen among many people here. This is also what makes Dorothy Day such an attractive witness; she was just as comfortable saying the Rosary and going to Mass as she was speaking out for the poor and standing on a picket line.

But now – How can I make both piety and commitment to the poor more central in my daily life?

Friday, January 04, 2008

A New Year

I spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Dulce Nombre de Copán. Padre Efraín celebrated Mass at 10 pm on the Eve and at 9:00 in the morning.

In the afternoon I joined him and some others for a Mass in a remote village, Vega Redonda. In the small church, lit only with a Coleman lantern, Mass was celebrated. The music was good, with three instrumentalists – even though they sang a Gloria in place of the Alleluia. (Oh, the need for formation in liturgy.)

I had several opportunities to speak with Padre Efraín, who has a strong desire to develop the spiritual and physical lives of the parish. He plans to form a formation team to help develop materials and leaders for religious education and for the base communities in the parish. He also hopes to work on improving the lives of the people with workshops in vegetable gardens and in the construction and use of small silos for grain.

Pade Efráin gave me a ride back to Santa Rosa since he had some chores to do and was leaving a young man at the bus terminal who was going to the north coast to volunteer for a short time with a team who reach out to young people – a local missionary.

The weekend before New Year’s Eve I spent in Camalote, in the municipality of Dolores. I first participated in the meeting of leaders in the area. Sunday morning they had me preach at the Celebration of the Word. There were not a lot of people there but it is the time of the coffee harvest and Christmas vacation. But what struck me was that I was prayed for twice during the celebration. It is humbling to be prayed for so earnestly.

What became clearer is that I am hear as a missionary, one sent by God to help reveal where God is present here and to help all of us see and experience God’s love in our midst. It’s a call to go out and spread the Good News.

There are lots of ways to do this. Wednesday night when I went to Weekend’s Pizza for a meal to celebrate the new year, I ate with some US families who work with Protestant groups here. I had met them before. I invited Trish, the wife of one family, to join me the next day to visit with the kids in Hogar San José, a home for malnourished kids under five run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. I had gone there a few times in the first month I was here and had visited during the week after Christmas.

The kids are energetic, to say the least, and long for human warmth. There are about five workers who care for forty kids. They were all over me and Trish. After a while they quieted down, but still wanted to be lifted up into the air. We stayed until the kids were put in their beds for a nap after lunch.

Last week I had seen one child, named Valentín – very thin, with twisted limbs, who can neither walk or speak. He does get around and is somewhat responsive to attention. I found out Thursday that he is nine years old. His presence really touched me. Perhaps he reminded me of John Hadwiger who often came to Mass at St. Thomas with his mother, Ellen. John is seriously disabled but very responsive. Whenever I would go over and greet him he would say, “I missed you.” He also often would respond very appropriately - and loudly – during Mass. I hope I get to see him and his mother when I get to Ames later this month. (See the photo for the three of us:

A New Year
– a time to reach out, to be missionaries,
– a time to be grateful for the prayers of the poor,
– a time to let oneself be touched by the needs of the disabled,
– a time to be give thanks to God and respond in love.